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Such is the the speed with which the modern media and academic establishments rewrite history, mostly to cover their own tracks, that whereas in the early 1980's Thomas Sowell was considered a dangerous Right-wing radical, whose open opposition to Marxism, Socialism and statism were quaint enough in their own right, but particularly bizarre coming from a black man, he now is considered to be a mere triumphalist, rehashing well-known truths, and unfairly mutilating the dead bodies of his vanquished ideological opponents.  Thus, in the 1985 New York Times review of his book Marxism, Brigette Berger actually considered it an open question whether Sowell's negative view of Marxism would eventually prevail, but in the very brief Times review of Quest for Cosmic Justice, Allen Boyer dismisses Sowell's critique of egalitarianism for too often taking "soft shots at easy targets."  I'm sure that Sowell is happy to hear that his views have triumphed so completely as to no longer need elucidation, but unfortunately a closer reading of the book reveals that many of his lessons have yet to be learned, especially by folks like the New York Times.

The book is divided up into four interrelated sections, apparently based on lectures that he's been giving throughout the years.  In the title essay he discusses the quintessential difference between the Left and the Right : their differing views on "justice."  The classical, or conservative, view of justice has been that justice requires society to provide and enforce a fair and impartial set of rules which treats everyone equally, but that subsequent inequalities in outcome are beyond the scope of societal concern.  The modern, or liberal, ideal of justice--which as even been renamed "social justice" and which Sowell calls "cosmic justice"-focuses on equality of outcomes, instead of on fairness of the process.  Affirmative Action is the most notorious product of this ideal, with its reliance on government intervention to pick and choose between job applicants and those seeking college admission, based on the criteria of proportions of representation by ethnicity in the given workplace or school.

It may well be, and Sowell concedes the point unnecessarily, that greater equality is a desirable social good.  But as Sowell discusses here and in subsequent sections on "The Mirage of Equality" and "The Tyranny of Visions," it is beyond the capacity of government to achieve.  For one thing the imposition of equality does not merely elevate those at the bottom of the scale; it necessarily imposes limitations on those at the top.  Every time government favors one person it disfavors another.  In addition, it requires government to make continual judgments and adjustments, a task for which it is ill-suited, in order to maintain the equality of results.  As F. A. Hayek has written, these kinds of fine tuning decisions presuppose a level of knowledge which no human nor human institution has access to.  It is only in the free market, where information flows freely, that we even begin to approach a level of efficient decision making.

One would think that by now, as Boyer suggests, this basic point would be beyond controversy.  The massive 20th Century failures of every form of authoritarian and totalitarian government--dictatorship, fascism, communism, theocracy, socialism--should have finally laid to rest the notion that bureaucrats can effectively manage modern economies.  Sadly, the delusion persists.  Sowell calls the people who cling to these visions "the anointed," because what really persists is not just beliefs in certain ideologies but the belief of certain elites that they, because of their good intentions and imagined moral purity, should be allowed to exercise control over the rest of us :

    Cosmic visions of society are not just visions about society.  They are visions about those people
    who hold these visions and the role of such people in society, whether these people are deemed to
    be leaders of a master race, the vanguard of the proletariat, saviors of the planet, or to have some
    other similarly self-flattering role as an anointed visionary group "making a difference" in the
    unfolding of history.  Heady cosmic visions which give the sense of being one of the anointed
    visionaries can hold tyrannical sway in disregard or defiance of facts.

Finally, in the last section, "The Quiet Repeal of the American Revolution," Sowell makes the case that the modern "Quest for Cosmic Justice" represents a fundamental betrayal of the nation's founding ideals.  The American Revolution was unique in many respects, but mostly for its emphasis on "laws not men" :

    Down through the centuries, people of the most diverse philosophic persuasions have proceeded as
    if what was needed was to replace false doctrines with true doctrines and false leaders with true
    leaders--the heathens with the faithful, capitalists with socialists, royalty with republicans, and so
    on.  But, unlike the French revolution or the Bolshevik revolution, for example, the American
    revolution and its resulting constitution did not center on a change in the cast of characters in high
    places or on a change in their political language or immediate policy agenda.  Its central concern
    was in establishing new processes by which whoever occupied the places of power could be
    restrained and replaced.  In short, it did not pretend to have a doctrinal truth but instead implied a
    deep skepticism that anyone had either a monopoly on doctrinal truth or such moral or intellectual
    rectitude as to be exempt from constraints, condemnations, or dismissals from office by their fellow
    men.

    What the American Constitution established was not simply a particular system but a process for
    changing systems, practices, and leaders, together with a method of constraining whoever or
    whatever was ascendant at any given time.

This returns us to where we began, with the conflict between process and results.  Would that it were true that the argument was over and that the vision of process as paramount had triumphed.  But we need look no further than the 2000 Presidential election to see that this is, sadly, not the case.

It has been common in the media to depict the confrontation between Al Gore and George W. Bush in post-election Florida as simply a contest between partisans willing to adopt any position which was politically expedient.  This assessment badly misses the mark.  The contest was really between those who believe in the process, in the rule of law, and those who believe in the fairness of results, in "cosmic justice."  If you locked them up and administered truth serum, conservatives would admit that they didn't care if more people intended to vote for Gore, what matters is that under the rules of the game he lost; and liberals would acknowledge that they didn't care what the law said, they wanted the wishes of the majority to be vindicated, and they believe that they knew those wishes.  Far from political posturing, these views go to the very core of what it means to be a conservative or a liberal.

In that case, happily, the defenders of the process won, but it was a damned near run thing.  That is why books like this one, even though Sowell does not plow any new ground and even though many of his arguments will be familiar to many readers, are important.  He is a very persuasive and readable writer, with a vital case to make : equality under law and equality of result are incompatible; we must choose one or the other, and the track record of egalitarianism is so abysmal that even if its goals are desirable in the abstract, the price to be paid in achieving them in the real world is too high.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Philosophy
Book-related and General Links:
    -Thomas Sowell | Home
    -Thomas Sowell's Home page (Hoover Institute)
    -LINKS : Thomas Sowell resources on the Web (Freedom's Nest)
    -WEBRING : Thomas Sowell Webring
    -ARCHIVES : Thomas Sowell (Upstream)
    -ARCHIVES : Thomas Sowell Column (Townhall.com)
    -ARCHIVES : Thomas Sowell Column (Jewish World Review)
    -ARCHIVES : "thomas sowell" (FindArticles)
    -ESSAY: How Black Leaders Are Leading Black Americans Astray: Black leaders are less interested in leading black Americans than in "extracting what they can from white people." (Thomas Sowell, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY : Ethnicity and IQ (Thomas Sowell, American Spectator)
    -ESSAY : The Unheavenly City Revisited : Edward C. Banfield's classic critique of the American city is even more powerful today than when it was published 25 years ago -- but so are the interests that would deny its insights (Thomas Sowell, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of EQUALITY, THE THIRD WORLD, AND ECONOMIC DELUSION By P.T. Bauer (Thomas Sowell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE CHINESE OF AMERICA By Jack Chen (Thomas Sowell, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Black and right : Thomas Sowell talks about the arrogance of liberal elites and the loneliness of the black conservative. (Ray Sawhill, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : Gergen Dialogue with Thomas Sowell (Online Newshour, PBS, JULY 11, 1996)
    -CHAT : with Thomas Sowell (Omni Magazine)
    -An Unofficial Thomas Sowell Page
    -ARCHIVES : "thomas sowell" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of The Quest for Cosmic Justice (Allen D. Boyer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Quest for Cosmic Justice (Noemie Emery, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of The Quest for Cosmic Justice (Jay Nordlinger, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Quest for Cosmic Justice (Arch Puddington, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of A Personal Odyssey By Thomas Sowell (2000)(Deborah E. McDowell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Personal Odyssey by Thomas Sowell (Lino A. Graglia, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of MIGRATIONS AND CULTURES A World View. By Thomas Sowell (1996)(Thurston Clarke, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE VISION OF THE ANOINTED Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. By Thomas Sowell (1995)(RICHARD EPSTEIN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Vision of the Annointed (ROGER KIMBALL, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of RACE AND CULTURE A World View. By Thomas Sowell (John Stone, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of INSIDE AMERICAN EDUCATION The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas. By Thomas Sowell (John Brademas, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PREFERENTIAL POLICIES An International Perspective. By Thomas Sowell (1990) (Andrew Hacker, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A CONFLICT OF VISIONS. By Thomas Sowell (1987(WALTER GOODMAN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of A CONFLICT OF VISIONS By Thomas Sowell (1987)(Fred Barnes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of MARXISM Philosophy and Economics. By Thomas Sowell (1985)(Brigitte Berger, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Rhetoric or Reality? By Thomas Sowell (1984)(William Julius Wilson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE ECONOMICS AND POLITICS OF RACE An International Perspective. By Thomas Sowell (1983)(George M. Fredrickson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of ETHNIC AMERICA A History. By Thomas Sowell (1981)(David Herbert Donald, NY Times Book Review)
 

GENERAL :
    -ESSAY : Origins of the Black Underclass : why black urban ghettos are poorer and more isolated today than they have ever been. The question remaining is how to reverse the effects of what has become a self-sustaining culture (Nicholas Lemann, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : The Near-Myth of our Failing Schools : Ideologically inspired lamentations about the parlous state of American education mask the much more complex truth (Peter Schrag, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Black liberals finally getting the message (Gregory Kane, July 2001, Baltimore Sun)

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